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Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Backpacking

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Backpacking is a great way to unplug, unwind, and enjoy some time away from civilization. It is also widely known that hiking provides numerous physical and mental health benefits. Today we're going over some of these added perks you can enjoy doing something you love: backpacking!

Physical Health Benefits

It probably comes as no surprise that hiking is one of the best cardiovascular exercises out there, improving its overall function. Hiking regularly can lower your risk of heart disease, improve blood pressure, and lower cholesterol. In fact, walking and jogging are two of the top ways to lower bad cholesterol!

Regularly hiking is also an easy, enjoyable way to trim body fat, gain muscle, and maintain a healthy body weight. (Don't be surprised if you lose some weight on longer or more grueling backpacking trips too.) Hiking also increases overall lung function and helps to balance your blood sugar levels, decreasing your risk for diabetes.

Backpacking also helps to increase bone density, which can help prevent breaks now and lower your chances for osteoporosis and other bone-related issues later in life. (Assuming you keep up with regular walks into your golden years.)

A Word on Training

Backpacking requires a lot of endurance and stamina as well, which training ahead of time will help with. Training is very individual-specific and can include exercises done at home to target certain areas of the body, such as the shoulders and lower back, going on frequent day-hikes with a pack, or a combination of both. (Check out this article from REI for some great tips on conditioning and specific exercises to use to prepare your body for a backpacking trip.)

Training is a good idea for a number of reasons, including getting used to carrying more weight in your pack over time, which will reduce your chances of your pack making you sore. You'll also be less likely to be sore and exhausted overall at the end of the day on long backpacking trips. Preparing your body ahead of time will also reduce your risk of injury out on the trail. Training also helps strengthen your core, which helps with balance, which helps over rocky and other uneven terrain, and supporting the weight of your pack for long distances

As you can see, going on frequent, shorter hikes is a good way to prepare your body in general for longer, more taxing backcountry hikes.

Mental Health Benefits

More and more studies have been conducted over the past decade or so on the mental health benefits of hiking as well. Results have shown that spending time outdoors is just as beneficial for your mind as it is your body. Let's take a look at some of these below!

Spending time miles away from civilization and hordes of people is a great way to unwind and unplug. Backpacking allows you time to relax and clear your mind, leaving behind everyday worries and stresses of your normal day-to-day life. Aside from “escaping it all”, hiking gives you something else to focus on, like navigation, finding sticks to make a fire, finding water sources, etc. Being out in the woods is almost like a form of meditation in this way, clearing your mind of “garbage” and focusing on something more constructive.

Tying in with the above, backpacking is a great, natural way to help with a variety of mental health issues. Studies have shown that it helps in reducing anxiety and greatly improves the symptoms of depression. In general, people who go on walks for at least 90 minutes and away from urban settings showed vastly improved moods at the end of their outing. Needless to say, you can imagine how much good even an overnight backpacking trip can have on your state of mind! Spending extended periods in the great outdoors literally makes you happier.

Speaking of mental health issues, backpacking/hiking has also been shown to improve an individual's cognitive functioning, such as memory, focus, and problem-solving, both short-term and long-term. It's pretty cool to know that backpacking can actually help with your job performance at home too!

It's a good thing hiking in general boosts your problem-solving skills, because you may have to actively use them along the trail or at camp. Despite your best efforts and planning, you're likely to encounter a problem at some point in time in the wilderness, whether major, such as a bear getting too close for comfort, or minor, such as finding the best spot to cross a stream. Not only can you learn from your mistakes and apply this to future backpacking-related issues, but exercising this area of your brain will increase your problem-solving skills in everyday life as well.

Hiking also increases your sensory perception. Being away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life offers the chance to pay attention to things you might not normally. The birds chirping in the trees. The sound of the wind blowing across a field of dry grass. In other words, backpacking is a great way to remember to appreciate and enjoy the simple things in life, such as the changing leaves in autumn or the calming sound of a babbling brook.

It goes without saying that no matter how well a trip goes, there is always a sense of accomplishment after completing a trail, especially a challenging one you weren't sure you were capable of. Relying only on yourself (and perhaps a few close hiking buddies) miles out in the wilderness is a great confidence and self-esteem booster.

Making the Most of Your Trip

Here are a few tips to make the most of your next backpacking trip for a truly mindful experience.

  • Don't over-estimate your abilities - You won't enjoy yourself as much if you're struggling the whole time. Plan the length of your trip accordingly and account for the type of terrain you'll be covering as well.
  • Enjoy your breaks - Listen to the birds chirping, watch the creek flowing, gaze at the stars, and so forth on snack breaks and at camp.
  • Unplug - Cell phone service can reach quite a few seemingly remote areas nowadays. Try your best to stay off your cell phone and truly enjoy your surroundings at camp.
  • Take pictures - Although contradictory to the suggestion above since most people use their phone as a camera as well these days, taking pictures is a great way to remember your trip as a whole and your favorite parts of it for years to come.
  • Utilize local hiking groups online - Check with hiking groups online to find the best route for you. You can ask about how busy a trail is, how difficult it is, hazards to watch out for, and more from fellow hikers who have already covered the trail. Avoid high-usage trails so you can enjoy more nature and fewer people.

No matter what your reasons are for backpacking, we hope you remember to take the time to “smell the roses” along the way.

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